Leading the Charge
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers has made all the right moves as the Celtics chase an NBA Championship
Doc Rivers survived a 24-win season and lead the Celtics to the NBA's best record and a record-setting turnaround.
Drawing up plays, watching countless hours of film, engaging the media and yelling at officials are just a few of the more obvious and stressful responsibilities of an NBA head coach. Developing the raw talents of fresh-from-high school players and convincing these millionaire athletes to run through walls for you is considerably tougher.
Believing in yourself when your team has lost 18 games in a row should be impossible.
Luckily for the Boston Celtics, Glenn "Doc" Rivers excels at all of these things.
Thankfully for Rivers, 46, the team's front office believed in him, renewed his contract after a 24-win season and renovated his team, giving him the chance he deserved -- the chance to coach a team with a chance to be a contender. He's no longer whittling away practice time trying to teach the fundamentals of the game to some future stars and a few marginal NBA players.
After the Celtics' amazing offseason overhaul, Rivers is teaching three of the game's top all-stars, two promising youngsters and a cavalry of solid veterans to play together and chase what has eluded the franchise for 22 seasons: an NBA championship.
"Yeah, I guess you wake up better. You wake up more confident," Rivers said of his new talent-laden roster. "My work hasn't changed, but it's definitely more enjoyable to go to work."
If anything, Rivers' job is harder. With expectations of nothing less than a World Championship, the coach has his work cut out for him. But he insists he'd have it no other way. He's always been a film junkie, and he turns off his cell phone and locks himself in his Boston apartment when he wants to review tape for hours at a time.
He's not afraid to assign some homework, either. A few days before the start of training camp, which would take the Celtics halfway across the globe to Rome, Rivers asked rookies Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Gabe Pruitt to do some Googling. He told them that they'd be making a presentation to their new teammates about a special word.
He wanted his charges all speaking the same language. The word? "Ubuntu".
Rivers borrowed a term from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and it's a term, when translated, means something along the lines of, "I am because we are". The ideals of community, selflessness and solidarity struck a chord with the squad, and the team closes its practices and huddles with the phrase. "It's been very, very powerful, more powerful that I honestly thought it would be," Rivers said of the rallying cry. "I have probably started my pregame speech with some form of it 30 times."
Whether it was used to implore teammates to run extra sprints together during practice, or to remind each other to leave enough pasta for the next guy at a team meal, or even as part of a sarcastic retort, the term caught on in the locker room, even if guys still have problems pronouncing it. T-shirts and bracelets followed, and it didn't take long for the media to catch on.
Hokey? Perhaps, but you can't argue its effectiveness. Critics doubted a team with three All-Stars could shelf their egos, ignore statistics and jell so quickly, but the Celtics looked unbeatable once the season started, winning their first eight games and racing out to a 29-3 record that was among the best starts in franchise history. Paul Piece, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen had all been to the conference finals on separate teams, but now they were joining together for the same goal. Only James Posey and late-season acquisition Sam Cassell have already won an NBA championship, so Rivers has a hungry bunch on his hands.
Rivers himself has the emptiness. He played 13 NBA seasons and never won an NBA title. Sidelined with an ACL injury midway through the season, he watched his New York Knicks teammates come close in 1993-94, losing to Cassell's Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals. But Rivers said that his current Celtics team reminds him of his first year in New York, the 1992-93 team, a 60-22 squad that lost to Michael Jordan's Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"We had a single-minded goal. We started out with it and we stayed with it," Rivers said. "We were committed to each other as a group, there was never friction, and they were tough. That is what this team reminds me of."
Doc gets some video work in on the team charter from Phoenix to Portland during the team's February West Coast road trip.
Rivers' playing days carry weight with his players, many of whom grew up watching him play with the Hawks, Clippers, Knicks and Spurs. Posey calls it "court credit", noting that it's easier to respect a coach who's been through the NBA grind as a player. "I've been on teams where the coach hasn't even played in the league, and he's supposed to know everything. It is sort of tough to accept," Posey said of Rivers, an NBA All-Star in 1988.
"That's why I think his communication is respected and valued both ways."
Two-way communication is a hallmark of Rivers' style, and he's constantly seeking input from his players. Reserve forward Brian Scalabrine said that Rivers is constantly feeling for the "pulse" of his team. "He can come in here and feel that we need to practice tomorrow or we don't need to practice tomorrow. That's part of being a great coach," Scalabrine said.
Motivating players, massaging egos and managing people are just a few of the other "soft skills" of an NBA coach, and Rivers has those down too. Garnett agreed to the trade to Boston after discussing it with Tyronn Lue, a Rivers disciple who played for him in Orlando, and Rivers' reputation as a "player's coach" can't be understated.
At the All-Star Game in New Orleans, KG lavished Rivers with praise, celebrating his ability to get results from players and yet be sympathetic to their feelings.
"Obviously I've had numerous coaches in my years, and he is the best at motivating players, being very straightforward, but at the same time, soothing and understanding," Garnett said. "It's a rare mix. A rare, rare, rare mix, man."
That alchemy, if you will, probably stems from a combination of Rivers' own diverse coaching influences, from the jovial Rick Majerus, his coach at Marquette who dubbed him "Doc" at a summer camp when he was wearing a Julius Erving t-shirt, to taskmaster Larry Brown (Rivers called him "relentless"), for whom Rivers played in Los Angeles with the Clippers. Stir in a heavy dose of Mike Fratello ("that's why I'm nuts probably, because of him") and toss in a dash of Pat Riley for some raw emotion, and there you have the recipe.
Rivers is one of the most animated coaches you'll see on an NBA sideline, and it's not unusual for him to be photographed with his arms flailing as he protests a whistle (or questions the lack thereof) or his eyes bulging incredulously at players or referees alike. His loud, excited dialogue can be heard from several rows behind the team's bench.
In the huddle, however, Rivers often implores his players to calm down, and he is known for being able to draw up plays on the fly with the best of them. At postgame press conferences, his hands are typically covered in green stains from diagramming with his dry-erase marker, but it's a small price to pay for a few critical hoops that might decide a game. The Celtics are one of the top teams in the NBA at scoring baskets coming out of timeouts.
"Doc is probably one of the best in the league with the pen. The man knows how to draw up plays. This year I'd say we're far above the rest of the league. It's like buckets every timeout," Scalabrine said, adding that Rivers' experience as a player, knowing personnel, his feel for the game and anticipation gives the Celtics an edge when he's setting up a play. "Ray [Allen] knows how to set a guy up, and Doc knows that."
Rivers has learned a lot along the way, and he credits his two stints in the broadcast booth for much of what he's gleaned from watching opposing coaches and their systems, saying it widened his horizon.
"The only systems I knew were the ones I had played in. When you do TV, you get to see all these different systems," Rivers said. "In some ways it reassured what you wanted to do, and sometimes you saw something and it made you change your mind."
Rivers was offered an assistant coaching position with the Spurs upon his retirement, but declined it because he needed some separation from the game and a break from basketball. But deep down, he knew he eventually wanted to be an NBA head coach, something Fratello had picked up on early in Rivers' career. "Fratello told me all the time. He would actually start out conversations with 'when you become a coach'; I mean, he would say that all the time. Riles started doing the same thing," Rivers said.
Doc draws up a play in the huddle for the his team against the Washington Wizards.
Without any experience, Rivers began his coaching career in Orlando in 1999, eschewing his cushy TV gig mostly because he missed being "in the fray." And his first year with the Magic proved surprisingly successful despite low expectations; Rivers directed a team that featured four starters who'd gone undrafted to a 41-41 record, barely missing a playoff berth but earning him NBA Coach of the Year honors.
But he may have peaked too early in Orlando. A few more injury-riddled seasons with the Magic ended in first round playoff defeats, and the 2003-04 team suffered a disastrous 1-10 start that prompted Rivers' dismissal. "I don't look back a lot. The way I look at Orlando, I was Coach of the Year my first year. We were never under .500 in the [first] four years and we had more bad luck than any franchise could have," he said. "It forced me to be a better coach because of all the injuries we had. It made me better. It may have been some of my best coaching."
Within weeks he was back doing television, joining Al Michaels on ABC's NBA telecasts for the rest of the season. That summer he took the job with the Celtics, and the following season Rivers led the team to an Atlantic Division title thanks in part to the midseason acquisition of former star Antoine Walker.
The next two seasons saw the team's roster in flux and the pressure and losses mounted; Rivers said it felt like Groundhog Day given his Orlando experience. At the time, he certainly drew his share of long-distance ire from the talk-radio whiner set and a few yahoos in the balcony, but Rivers made believers out of the people around him -- the media who covered him every day and the players who went to war for him. Even in a 24-win season, the Celtics were rarely blown out.
"Our guys played hard. It's funny, I called [Minnesota Timberwolves coach] Randy Wittman recently and said, 'Hey man, you guys are playing hard,' and I said, 'I hate to say that because I heard that all of the time last year.' As a coach it's nice, but it means you're losing," Rivers said.
The only way to stay sane was to think about progress that can't be charted by wins and losses. He took pride in the development of Al Jefferson, Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, and the state of his locker room, which was surprisingly friction-free despite an uninspiring record. And while he has a much older, more mature group this season, he's stuck a balance between keeping things light and keeping the team on task.
"He's done a great job of keeping everybody focused on going in the same direction. When we come into the gym, everybody comes with their hard hat to get the job done. He's made sure that when we travel we have fun, but we're about business," Ray Allen said. "He's allowed us to do what we do, but he'll reel us in if we get to wild and crazy. He's treated us all like men."
Thankfully, Rivers doesn't have to say much to remind his team what it's playing for. At the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint in Waltham, a spotlight draws a large circle next to the 1986 Championship banner.
The message is clear. Something is missing.
Peter Stringer covers the team for Celtics.com. You can send him .